Along Dubai’s 14-lane Sheikh Zayed Road, amid the cascading skyscrapers, the elevated subway and U.S. fast food chains, a nine-floor elliptical curiosity has slowly taken shape over the last several years.
The Museum of the Future, the $136 million government-sponsored museum that opened last month, gives visitors a peek into tomorrow. But the project also is an example of how buildings may be designed and assembled for decades to come: a blend of human skill and digital power.
With an elliptical void at the center of its torus shape — described by some as a giant eye, others as a misshapen doughnut and The Architect’s Newspaper as “the Paul Bunyan-sized pinky ring” — the 320,000-square-foot building has no columns to support its structure. Instead it relies on a network of 2,400 steel tubes that intersect diagonally in its outer frame and onto which slabs of concrete flooring and almost 183,000 square feet of cladding were attached.
Surrounding this on the 189,444-square-foot facade are 1,024 stainless steel panels incised with a message of hope for the future from Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, whose vision of the emirate as a hub of innovation inspired the museum’s development.
The message was rendered in 3-foot-tall Arabic calligraphy designed by the Emirati artist Mattar Bin Lahej. The incisions created windows in the facade, allowing flashes of sunlight into the building during the day and, thanks to LED lighting outlining the windows’ shapes, illumination at night.
“I see the building as the future, but calligraphy as our country’s legacy,” said Mr. Bin Lahej, who designed the variation of the slanting thuluth script used in the project. “I needed to make something for the future from the past.”
The museum has six floors of exhibits that imagine life in the year 2071, including a space station (named OSS Hope, the same name the United Arab Emirates gave the spacecraft that began orbiting Mars last month) and a digitally re-created Amazon rainforest. There is a children’s area, a 345-seat theater and a cavernous top-floor that could accommodate as many as 1,000 people for a meeting or event.
And it all started with a computer algorithm, said the building’s architect, Shaun Killa, of the Dubai architecture firm Killa Design.
“We fed a computer what’s called a parametrically scripted growth algorithm,” he said. “You give it the rules. You say you want this many floors and this much height. You have to teach the algorithm to think, but then you go away on your weekend and see what it comes up with.”
Mr. Killa said a combination of architectural software and engineering design created about 20 versions of the building’s steel frame, and he and his team narrowed the choices to the most efficient in terms of cost, minimum material usage and ease of assembly.
Once the final design was chosen, “we used 3-D modeling software to set the calligraphy onto the building’s surface,” Mr. Killa said. “We then had to make sure that over 1,000 steel diagrid nodes that the building required were not going to land on the windows.”
From there, a local facade design company, Affan Innovative Structures, created the molds for the external panels (each taking one to three days to make). Using all four of its massive mold-making machines, it still took almost three years to create all the molds.
“If it hadn’t been for all the computer-driven machinery, it would probably have taken double the time and the staff,” Mr. Killa said. “It helps when you have a 22-kilowatt machine smashing out those molds and not taking holidays or Ramadan off.”
For Tobias Bauly of the British engineering consultancy Buro Happold, who was the museum’s project director, the brilliance of the project was both the digital imagining of it all and its translation into the manufacturing process.
Each 3-D facade panel was first created digitally, and that data then was sent to Affan’s four large robotized computerized numerical control (C.N.C.) routers, which use massive drill bits on crane rails to punch out large-scale designs. Those giants bits created a perfect mold of each facade panel, and then fiberglass and carbon fiber were laid on.
“The facade panels are entombed in their molds and then are vacuum bagged and cured in supersized ovens to activate and solidify the fiberglass and carbon fiber layers together,” Mr. Bauly explained. “What pops out of the mold is the structural chassis of the facade panel, including the calligraphy cutouts for the glazing.”
But the work wasn’t done just yet. “The stainless steel skin, which is laser-cut to help it adopt to the panel’s surface, is placed in the oven to conform and bond it to the fiberglass panel,” he added.
In the end, each panel was a composite of glass fiber reinforced plastic and an outer skin of stainless steel. The calligraphy incisions, mostly ranging from three to eight feet wide, created the hundreds of different shapes into which matching glass panes were affixed.
“We used a glass-reinforced fiber facade, using a process you see a lot in high-end boat making and with similar technologies to the wings of aircraft,” said Majed Ateeq Almansoori, deputy executive director at Dubai Future Foundation, which operates the museum. “We had to ensure that the facade was strong enough to withstand both the weather and aging.”
When installation of the exterior panels began, digital technology came to the fore once again.
“Each time you install a piece, the building naturally shifts a little to take up the load, which happens with any building,” Mr. Bauly said. “But we had to analyze complex movements in all directions given the shape, a process that allowed us to check pieces digitally before fabrication and then install them in the right sequence accordingly.”
All the steel tubes were welded together, and the facade panels then bolted to brackets on those tubes. “We then had to ensure every panel could be adjusted to sit perfectly against its neighboring panels and that components of the facade could be easily replaced,” Mr. Almansoori said. “We don’t get much rain in the U.A.E., but it’s extremely humid and that is a challenge for any facade, as well as the heat and dust.”
The building’s internal sheath of white gypsum, in addition to the building’s insulation, help shield visitors from the heat during the summer, when temperatures typically soar to 46 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Fahrenheit) for days on end.
Also, “the gypsum layer helps people laser-focus on the calligraphy,” said Khalfan Belhoul, the foundation’s chief executive. “That layer shades out everything else, such as the brightness of the stainless steel.”
The process of creating the gypsum layer — essentially a mirror image of the exterior skin — involved hundreds of workers. It took them more than two years to laser cut the window incisions, Mr. Bauly said, using the 3-D model to match up with the exterior facade.
“Technology and automation defined every piece of this museum, but the adjustments took human intervention,” Mr. Belhoul said. “In the actual installation, it was more about humans than cranes.”
That sentiment was echoed by many of those involved in the museum’s concept and execution — from the first algorithm to the last piece of gypsum.
“I can’t tell you the joy when we fitted the first rung of panels and it all matched up. Perfectly,” Mr. Bauly said. “Everything we have ever known about buildings has changed with this one project.”